I'm standing In the warm, still air on my porch, gazing down the driveway at the new deck emerging from the rubble of construction at my neighbor's house. He's hustling to get this porch finished before a scheduled party this afternoon, having already laid a new flagstone patio to the south of his home. Looking at the debris of building materials in our shared driveway, I think about other wooden platforms on which I have sat, watching other summer scenes.
I am transported back in time, in place, in space, to the top forty but one, on Reynold's Mountain, in Newton County, Arkansas. August, 1986, and I had been persuaded to camp, something that I had not done for decades. With a slight nod to my city sensitivities, my companion conceded that we would pitch the tent on a wooden platform that he had built for such purpose, in the thick of trees, barely in sight of the rough road that led us to his land.
I stood, in cut-off jeans, a spaghetti-strap tank, and a man's work shirt, gazing around the span of wilderness. I was called upon to hand him things that we had hauled from the vehicle -- a back pack, a duffel, the sleeping bags. As I waited for him to finish assembling our temporary quarters, I glanced about, wondering if I could endure the heat, the bugs, and the absence of plumbing facilities.
After our gear had been stowed, we walked a bit, along a crude path, through a heavy growth of old trees. Through the still of unblemished nature, I heard the resonant voice of my companion cautioning from behind that I should watch out. . .for flying snakes.
I stopped, and he nearly crashed into my back. Flying snakes? I assumed this was a cruel joke. He shook his head, and I gazed upward, beginning to rethink the wisdom of this rural odyssey. We started forward again, though I repeatedly stumbled over vines and fallen branches, since I couldn't tear my gaze from the heights where these snakes must dwell.
Towards evening, we got the car from the crude parking spot between two spindly second-growth trees, and traversed the backside of the mountain to Thomas Creek, an old commune at which the original member now lived with his new wife. As the crickets and cicadas raised mild alarm in the distant reaches of the compound, I helped the wife assemble dinner, making salad from ripe home-grown tomatoes, the cool sweet corn of an early harvest, and crisp leaf lettuce plucked outside the kitchen window.
Are there really flying snakes around here, I asked, with a city slicker's hesitation at showing ignorance. I saw an eyebrow twitch. Did he tell you that, she wondered. When I nodded, she shrugged. There's lots of critters here, she conceded. I wouldn't be surprised. She turned away, and bent to pull a hot pan from the oven. I had no idea whether my fears had been assuaged or confirmed.
That night, we slept between two outstretched sleeping bags in the pup tent. My companion fell into an instant slumber, innocent and deep. I lay awake and listened to the sounds of the mountain -- a mild rumble, which I could not identify; the occasional distant rustle in the uncleared acreage; an owl's gentle hoot.
I awakened with the frightened jerk of one who has not noticed falling asleep. I was alone on the wooden berth, behind the small zipped flap of the narrow tent. I struggled to emerge, shaking the hesitance of a lingering dream and working the stiffness out of my limbs.
I did not see my companion. I glanced over the rise, and noted the continued presence of our vehicle. With care, I lowered myself until I sat on the edge of the decking, with my feet to the side, and there I perched, wishing for coffee.
In the underbrush around me, I heard sounds of a critter stirred by my careless, noisy rising. I judged it to be fairly large and quick, but could see nothing of its contours. I glanced above my head into the trees, thinking of the warning. Flying snakes.
I sat, unheralded by anything or anyone, while the sun began its quiet climb to warm the air around me. My mind shimmered, deprived of its normal chemical stimulant, and I felt my shoulders droop.
A sudden noise snapped me to attention. Surely it came from overhead, in the verdant billowing branches. I heard it again, to one side, but certainly above me. I began to wonder how large a reptile could be that lived in the trees and crossed the air between branches. I thought about what it might eat, and whether it required poison to snare its prey. The sound repeated, louder, closer, lower down, and I sprang to my feet. I felt the sweat rise on my brow and the blood rush, my heart pounding, my hands trembling.
And then, from the bushes, emerged my companion -- holding a thermos in one hand, and a long slender stick in the other.
Our eyes met. Neither of us spoke. He held out the coffee, which I took, and in a few minutes, we sat side by side on the aging wood, sipping the steaming liquid from tin cups, while we chatted about the people whom I would meet at church that morning.
A year later, after he and I had married, his daughter and his niece came to spend the summer in Arkansas with us. We lived down in town, and had a sleeping porch that looked out on the Buffalo River. Here the girls spent their time, giggling, talking, reacquainting themselves with each other after years of separation.
One morning, as I stood in the kitchen frying eggs, I heard a long stream of whispers from the porch where I thought they still slept. I paused, turning my good ear in their direction, with the cautious suspicion of the de facto parent of two pre-teens.
He told her there were flying snakes, I heard one of them say to the other, following which, they both snickered. Flying snakes, get real! the other answered. She never believed that, did she?
Indeed, she did. I finished making breakfast, and called out the front door for my husband, and through the back room for the girls. We assembled. Grace was spoken, as grace is spoken at every table at which I serve food. The girls glanced at each other, the occasional smirk passing across their faces, while I handed round the eggs and bacon. What's the joke, my husband asked, with all the innocence of every charming, handsome man. Their stifled laughter erupted as they surrendered to their amusement. I set my coffee cup down and slid my eyes in his direction. Flying snakes, I told him, and watched as he held a single breath, before his own laughter burst forth.
After a few seconds, I could not help but join them.
More than two decades later, I watch my neighbor start the last phase of the work on their deck. My cats loll on the porch, and a squirrel skitters along the parkway, before shimmying the height of our maple. The morning has grown too hot for me. With a last look at the boards lying on the broken asphalt, I go into the house, to start my day.
Saturday, July 16, 2011
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The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.
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